It’s 2011, and browsing is better than ever: the big-name packages deliver seriously speedy browsing on every conceivable kind of kit.
But there are big differences in their approach, in their expandability and in some cases, in their performance – so what’s the best browser for 2011? Let’s find out.
The best browser for speed
The numbers are impressive. On our test machine running Windows 7, Safari took 424.0ms to run through the Sunspider benchmarks, with Chrome managing 367.9ms and Firefox 328.7. Opera was nippier still – 312.2ms – while IE9 led the pack with an astonishingly quick 286.6ms. So the best browser for speed is IE9.
That’s on the PC. What’s the fastest browser for the Mac? IE9 and Opera don’t play in this game, and we found that Firefox, Chrome and Safari all achieved similar results on our MacBook Pro: 330.3ms for Firefox 4, 341.2 for Safari and 357.5ms for Chrome. Firefox has almost doubled in speed since beta 6, taking it from laggard to leader.
The best browser for add-ons
All of the big browsers can be enhanced to a greater or lesser degree, but the king here is undoubtedly Firefox with its extensions and Greasemonkey scripts. IE9 and Chrome lag behind but are catching up fast, while Safari and Opera have the fewest available add-ons – although Opera also has Unite, which turns your PC into a media server, and Widgets, which resemble Dashboard widgets in OS X or Sidebar Gadgets in Windows.
Firefox, Chrome and Opera are also skinnable, with Opera enabling you to move toolbars around the place, while IE9 and Safari use so little browser chrome skinning wouldn’t be worth the effort.
We’d give Firefox the gold here, although it’s largely a matter of taste: you’ll be able to do the basics, such as ad blocking, flash blocking and Twitter monitoring, no matter what browser you choose.
FIREFOX: Firefox on PC looks great, runs fast and has a mind-bogglingly big collection of add-ons and themes
The best browser for HTML5
A quick look at When Can I Use shows that the major browsers’ HTML5 support is very good, but there are distinct differences: if you click on Browser Comparison you’ll see that Chrome leads the pack, with Firefox in hot pursuit and the others trying to catch up.
Video is a particular sticking point: HTML5 video doesn’t specify a particular video format, so a schism is developing: Chrome, Firefox and Opera support Ogg/Theora video and WebM/VP8 video, while IE and Safari have plumped for H.264.
CHROME: The pace of Chrome development has been staggering, with new versions seeming to appear every five minutes
The best browser for privacy
Chrome has Incognito mode, Safari, Firefox and Opera have Private Browsing and IE9 has InPrivate browsing. IE also has Tracking Protection, which can help you block third-party tracking systems that might infringe your privacy.
Chrome can block third-party tracking via an extension (“Keep my opt-outs”) while Firefox has a slightly different implementation: its “Tell sites I do not want to be tracked” feature assumes sites are honest, ethical and will honour that setting. We’re not optimistic about that.
IE’s solution is the most interesting, as it will enable any organisation to create a “do not track” list that you can subscribe to.
The best browser for Windows 7
If your priority is speed, then the best browser for Windows 7 is IE9: it’s the fastest here by a considerable margin, and its Windows 7 integration – in particular, its ability to pin sites to the Taskbar to make them more like applications – is well executed.
If sheer expandability matters then Firefox is the best bet, with Opera and Chrome close behind. And Safari? It isn’t a bad browser, but there’s nothing about it that really jumps out.
SAFARI: We’re not sure about Safari on Windows at all. It does the job its supposed to, like dishwasher tablets or bleach
The best browser for Windows Vista
Vista users don’t get IE9’s ability to pin sites to the taskbar – that’s a Windows 7-only feature – but they get the same speedy browser, which makes IE9 another winner here. Once again if you’d rather shed a bit of speed for more extensions then Firefox is the one to go for.
The best browser for Windows XP
There’s no IE9 for Windows XP users, but you can still get Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera. They’re all perfectly good browsers on XP, although Safari once again is the least compelling: its rivals are all faster and more expandable, and the lack of a full screen mode will annoy netbook users.
The best browser for OS X
Here’s a surprise: on OS X, Apple’s own Safari can do a pretty good impression of the worst browser imaginable. The problem is that some extensions can cause performance problems.
On our machine the AdBlock extension slowed Safari down by so much that Sunspider didn’t take 300ms to complete; we watched it crawl for 30 minutes before we got fed up and shut it down. The difference was extraordinary: simply clicking Extensions on and off in Preferences enabled instant switching between a merry browsing experience and a miserable one.
Assuming you don’t install an errant one, Safari’s extension gallery covers the essentials – Gmail, Twitter, Flash blocking and so on – although it’s not as customisable as Chrome or Firefox. Then again, rivals don’t have Safari’s excellent Reader mode, which strips out adverts and other on-screen clutter to deliver a distraction-free reading experience.
Of the three, Chrome has the edge: we haven’t encountered errant extensions on Google’s browser, and it’s a much nicer place to spend time in than Firefox.
The best browser for Android
If you’ve ever wished sites would stop bouncing you to their mobile versions, Opera Mini may well be the best browser for Android: it syncs with your computer, crunches files down for speedier (and cheaper) mobile browsing, and it hasn’t been repeatedly beaten with the ugly stick. There’s an Android Firefox too, but for the time being it’s a hefty app that requires fairly hefty hardware to run happily.
The best browser for iPad
Purists would argue that the best browser for iPad is Apple’s own, but we beg to differ: if you like opening links in separate tabs when you’re browsing, Safari’s interface can be infuriating. Unfortunately most alternatives are crashy, ugly or both. iCab Mobile 4.5 (£1.19) is the exception. It’s fast, powerful, handles tabs beautifully, has a nifty full screen mode and only tends to crash if you try and open a billion tabs at once.